COMMENTARY | Spring training is right around the corner for the defending champion Boston Red Sox.
While the roster is returning largely intact and there is nothing suggesting a probable drop from contender status, the team still has questions just like anyone else this time of year.
With the countdown to the start of camp right around the corner, here are some of the biggest questions currently facing the Red Sox:
Who will be the team's center fielder?: After the team lost veteran Jacoby Ellsbury via free agency to the New York Yankees this offseason, it appeared that young Jackie Bradley Jr. would be next in line to start in center fielder. That is no longer a foregone conclusion.
The 23-year-old Bradley is one of Boston's top prospects, according to Baseball America, and just about any other reputable talent evaluator. However, the former first-round pick struggled in his first taste of the majors last season, as he hit just .189 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 37 games. Showing his potential, he has hit a combined .297 with a .404 OBP in three minor league seasons and is a strong defender.
Although Bradley may be ready to take the next step and assume the starting role in 2014, he will now have some company in spring training, as the team recently signed free agent Grady Sizemore to a one-year-deal.
The 31-year-old left-handed Sizemore was once one of the best young players in baseball until slowed by injuries. Microfracture knee surgery prevented him from playing since 2011. However, he averaged .281, 27 home runs, 81 RBIs 116 runs scored and 29 stolen bases per season from 2005 through 2008 with the Cleveland Indians. If he can regain even a fraction of that production in his comeback attempt, he could prove to be interesting competition.
On a positive note, it should be a win-win situation. Somebody will step up and clearly win the role or they will split it. Bradley still has minor league options while Sizemore's deal isn't large enough to make him a roster lock. Either way, it should be one of the top story lines to watch this spring.
The left side of the infield: The Red Sox have talented young players expected to start at shortstop and third base this year that should be the envy of many other teams in baseball, but that doesn't mean they don't come with questions.
Twenty-one-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts was recently named MLB.com's second-best prospect for 2014. He hit .250 in an 18 game trial in Boston last year, but saw significant playing time in the playoffs, hitting a solid .296 while impressing observers with his veteran poise. He will now look to carry that over to his first full major league season, and see exactly how good he can become.
Third baseman Will Middlebrooks is entering his third major league season. The 25-year-old has rare power for a corner infielder, belting 32 home runs in 615 at-bats since joining the Red Sox. He has struggled at times, finishing last season with a .227 batting average in 94 games, and spent nearly two months in the minors.
It appears the Red Sox have strong confidence in their young infielders. Currently, the primary backup options are light-hitting Jonathan Herrera (obtained in an offseason trade) and Brock Holt (who has 50 major league games to his credit). Last year's shortstop starter, Stephen Drew was not re-signed -- at least not yet, according to CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman.
Who will be the odd man out in the starting rotation?: The Red Sox currently have a logjam with their starters. Veterans Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster are all under contract and vying for five spots. Additionally, Allen Webster and Brandon Workman headline some talented pitching prospects that are on the verge of being ready to contribute to a major league rotation if needed.
Fortunately, having too much pitching is one of those good types of problems.
Health is always a concern but assuming the team breaks spring training with everyone intact, it's hard to imagine any of the youngsters will have forced their way into the rotation. Instead, the veterans are most likely to battle it out for the available spots.
Dempster could be traded or used in relief-where he has previous experience, including at the end of last season.
Lackey or Peavy could also be trade possibilities, as they have relatively team-friendly contracts, which would presumably be very desirable with the current high price of pitching around baseball.
Despite their questions, the Red Sox appear to be in very good shape for the 2014 season. But many of these will be answered as spring training progresses and opening day nears.Statistics via Yahoo MLB Stats and Baseball-Reference.com.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
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